Genealogies of the New Aesthetic

Genealogies of the New Aesthetic on Prezi

Christiane Paul and Malcolm Levy, “Genealogies of the New Aesthetic” in David Berry and Michael Dieter (eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, 2015, Palgrave, reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

Whether or not you believe in the theoretical and art-historical value of the concept of a New Aesthetic – and the related buzz surrounding the labels of post-digital, post-Internet, post-medium – their rapid spread throughout art networks testifies to a need for terminologies that capture a certain condition of cultural and artistic practice in the early 21st century. Some definitions of the New Aesthetic may sound like the much-parodied marketing speak one encounters at the SXSW festival, but the term still captures an important moment in the evolution of the digital realm and its impact on image and object culture.

At the core of the New Aesthetic, as originally outlined by James Bridle at SXSW1 and on his Tumblr (Bridle 2011), seems to be a twofold operation: first, the confluence and convergence of digital technologies in various materialities; and second, the ways in which this merger has changed our relationship with these materialities and our representation as subjects. The New Aesthetic captures the embeddedness of the digital in the objects, images and structures we encounter on a daily basis and the way we understand ourselves in relation to them. It captures the process of seeing like, and being seen through, digital devices. As a construct, the New Aesthetic covers a broad territory, and the way it has been framed – as a Tumblr, which by nature emphasizes the constant ‘now’ of image flux – makes it hard to identify its theoretical underpinnings and narrative. (Many essays and discussions over the past couple of years have contributed to shaping that narrative.) The New Aesthetic is a blurry picture, or perhaps the equivalent of a ‘poor image’ as Hito Steyerl would understand it, a ‘copy in motion’ with substandard resolution, a ‘ghost of an image’ and ‘a visual idea in its very becoming’, yet an image that is of value because it is all about ‘its own real conditions of existence’ (Steyerl 2009). Despite its inherent degradation, the New Aesthetic had enough recognizability to gain meme status. As Curt Cloninger has put it,

The New Aesthetic is not new (or it has always already been perpetually new). The fact that the NA has recently hit some sort of pop-meme coagulation tipping point (and acquired an ontological name) is merely evidence that technology has finally accumulated to the point of being easily and widely recognised as a collection of Tumblr images without needing to be supported or explained by any underlying theory whatsoever.

(Cloninger 2012)

The fact that the concept of the New Aesthetic did not need much of a theoretical framework to gain traction does not mean that the matrix of theories and histories that has shaped it is not highly complex. The goal of this text is to trace the multiple art-historical and theoretical influences that informed the imagery, definitions and statements accumulated in James Bridle’s New Aesthetics Tumblr. It strives to unpack the collage of images and influences accumulated on the Tumblr by tracking the visual and theoretical histories of some of its contents throughout the 20th century, creating a lineage for practices, artefacts and their aesthetics. This approach is driven by a couple of underlying questions. Why have technological developments over the past century now reached a tipping point where they become a (pop)cultural meme, and also the aesthetic of the images representing them is widely recognized as something ‘new’? Can the so-called New Aesthetic offer a radically new way of understanding aesthetics on the basis of evolving subject–object relationships?

The methodologies of the endeavour to trace genealogies for the New Aesthetic also need to be questioned. What function does the creation of genealogies fulfil? Does the New Aesthetic try to arrive at a radical questioning of aesthetics itself through a flattening of genealogies and histories, and would the reconstruction of its genealogies therefore undermine the New Aesthetic’s very goal? The key issue here is that any kind of aesthetics (or history for that matter) has to be seen in the context of social functionality in order to offer a valuable narrative. Social functionality by nature resists flattening; it is all about the specificities of ideas, images, objects and structures in their given context. A radical questioning of aesthetics cannot rely on a flattening of these specificities, and genealogies fulfil a function in establishing context for social functionalities. As Cloninger has pointed out, the New Aesthetic is not a single aesthetic: ‘Drone technology produces its own visual aesthetics. Google Maps produces its own visual aesthetics. Generative Processing code produces its own visual aesthetics. Glitches across various media, compression algorithms, and hardware displays produce their own visual aesthetics.’ (Cloninger 2012)

Starting from some of the definitions of the New Aesthetic, this chapter will sketch out the following visual and theoretical genealogies, not correlated in a linear way as listed below, but traceable from the different visual aesthetics of the materials gathered on Bridle’s Tumblr:

Visual Genealogies

  • Glitch, corruption artefacts, retro 8-bit graphics
  • Information visualization and algorithmic art
  • Machine vision and software vision
  • Augmented realities
  • Real-world geometries, the Internet of Things

Theoretical and Philosophical Genealogies

  • Perception and psychology
  • Aesthetics and systems
  • Politics of vision and image
  • Aesthetics of mediation
  • Ontology

The New Aesthetic – definitions

In order to address these genealogies, it is necessary to at least outline definitions of the New Aesthetic. In the ‘About’ section of his Tumblr, Bridle states that the material he has collected since May 2011 ‘points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them’ (Bridle 2011). He also emphasizes that the New Aesthetic should not be seen as a movement, but that it is ‘a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities’. In Bridle’s words, the New Aesthetic is a series of reference points to a cultural change that is occurring and an attempt to understand both the ways in which technology shapes the things we make and the ways in which we in turn perceive these things.

Bruce Sterling’s ‘An Essay on the New Aesthetic’, published in WIRED shortly after the SXSW panel, flippantly classified the New Aesthetic as ‘image-processing for British media designers’ and an ‘attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality’ (Sterling 2012). However, Sterling also captures essential qualities of the New Aesthetic by amplifying that it captures an eruption of the digital into the physical and, as a native product of modern network culture, is a ‘theory object’ and a ‘shareable concept’. Sterling writes:

The New Aesthetic is ‘collectively intelligent.’ It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight.

(Sterling 2012)

Bridle’s positioning of the New Aesthetic as a series of points encapsulating cultural change, as well as the breadth of the material scattered across the Tumblr, makes it necessary to distinguish between 1) the poor image presented by the visual and textual references and their resonances percolating through communication networks and 2) its higher-resolution counterpart that has emerged from the essays, discussions and publications that it has initiated. As a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, the diffuse, crowdsourcey and rhizomatic New Aesthetic per se is not socio-political or concerned with identity politics; it is a surface infused by anything ranging from technological gadgets and software to design, marketing and more. It is, as Bridle himself puts it, an echo. At the same time, this surface and the poor image reflect a spectrum of highly political issues, ranging from the invasive nature of technologies of vision to the understanding of the subject and its boundaries in an age of decentralized control mechanisms. The New Aesthetic is apolitical, while the discourse it generates is politicized. Perhaps this state is captured by Sterling’s distinction between the diffuse and ‘shareable concept’ (low-res poor image) and the ‘theory object’ (high-res politicized image). The New Aesthetic may masquerade as singular, but its nature is pluralistic. As Cloninger points out,

The New Aesthetic is not a single aesthetic. Drone technology produces its own visual aesthetics. Google Maps produces its own visual aesthetics. Generative Processing code produces its own visual aesthetics. Glitches across various media, compression algorithms, and hardware displays produce their own visual aesthetics.

(Cloninger 2012)

The following is a cursory exploration of some of the visual and theoretical genealogies of the New Aesthetic. The creation of an inclusive catalogue is beyond the scope of this text and would need to be pursued in other formats.

Visual genealogies

The history of the research, experimentation and artistic practice surrounding the body of work assembled under the umbrella of the New Aesthetic is situated in a complex space that comprises histories of film, video, sound art, electronics, early computational programming, and information systems. These histories create the foundations of media art practices as we know them today. The foundations of contemporary forms and fields such as glitch, 8-bit, machine vision, software vision, generative art and augmented reality are part of a history that goes back at least to the middle of the past century.

One interesting aspect to note is that from the 1930s to the 1950s a very important yet discretely documented change occurred within media. This change was brought about by the innovations in the area of amalgamations of synthesis – whether related to waveform, frequency, visual, audio or electronics – and their influence on the modes of production of the majority of modern technological equipment. This synthesis in some ways is the catalyst or precursor of the different manifestations of the New Aesthetic today. Many aspects of this synthesis came to bear on work that started to be created in the 1960s, and it is interesting to note the similarities between this early upsurge of work and the current wave, which is driven by tools of digital media creation and produces the type of work subsumed under the label New Aesthetic. During both these periods, emergent technologies were a way of disrupting earlier categories of artistic practice.

Glitch aesthetics, corruption artefacts, retro 8-bit graphics

The terms ‘glitch’ and ‘corruption artefacts’ in the broadest sense refer to images and objects that have been tampered with; their creation relates to the core of the media apparatuses used to store, produce and relay information. These corrupted images can be created by adjusting or manipulating the normal physical or virtual composition of the machine or software itself, or by using machines or digital tools in methods different from their normative modalities. From the 1960s onwards, early glitch material or artefacts were created in both video and sound art. Video artists such as Nam June Paik, Woodie and Steina Vasulka, Vito Acconci and Jacques Guyonnet were creating glitches within their video work, and informed contemporary practitioners such as Rosa Menkman.2 At the same time, artists such as John Cage, Phil Morton and Dan Sandin3 created sound and visual syntheses through their experimentation with traditional and modern outboard equipment such as modular synthesizers. The framework, processes and output of this practice forever shifted the landscape of electronic aesthetics.

Information visualization and generative algorithmic art

Generative algorithmic work in the digital sphere has been created at least since the 1960s, and a small group of pioneering artists was the focal point of this scene. A. Michael Noll, George Nees, Frieder Nake, Jean Pierre Hebert, Herbert Franke, Vera Molnar, Manfred Mohr, Charles Csuri, Roman Verostko, Harold Cohen and Hiroshi Kawano were among the artists who experimented with or are still producing algorithmically driven imagery.4 Their works are early predecessors of the generative and algorithmic art that occasionally pops up on the New Aesthetic Tumblr. Innovations in data visualization, closely connected to algorithmic practice, were driven by artists and programmers at the same time. To name just a few examples, Howard Fisher developed the first general-purpose mapping software in the 1960s; Herman Chernoff in 1973 used cartoon faces as a way of displaying data; Richard A. Becker and William S. Cleveland created the interactive graphic system in 1987, allowing direct manipulation of data through interaction; and George Legrady was beginning his noise-to-signal experiments at approximately the same time.5 The practices and methodologies related to the organization of information systems that were developed in these early works have now become ubiquitous throughout the media – from the internet to television and print publications – and part of the ‘new ways of seeing the world’ associated with the New Aesthetic.

Machine vision and software vision

Machine and software vision have a long history in computational and artistic practice that cannot be outlined in detail here. Even the proliferation of ‘drone culture’ and drone-related art projects today has precedents in the 1990s, when practising artists in the former Yugoslavia immediately reacted to the drones that were operated by the US over Bosnia in 1995. As this was the first use of drones in military conflict, the framework of their usage and machine vision took on a new meaning. Artists and collectives such as Marko Peljhan, System-77, Timo Anrall and the Bureau of Inverse Technology were discussing these issues up to 15 years before the explosion of drone art from 2011 onwards.6 ‘Sensing machines’ had their predecessors in Nicolas Schöffer’s CYSP 1 (1956)7 and Edward Ihnatowicz’s SAM (Sound Activated Mobile) (1968),8 which were among the first sculptures that moved directly and recognizably in response to what was going on around them. Artists such as Ken Rinaldo, who created the interactive robotic environment Autopoiesis (2000),9 have tracked interactions between machine vision and humans from the 1980s until today. Tied closely to machine vision is the software created to analyse (and profile) both humans and the world around us. Projects such as SVEN (The Surveillance Video Entertainment Network) (2006)10 anticipated the proliferation of face-recognition software used for profiling and in advertising today.

Augmented realities

Though augmented reality has become increasingly mainstream with the introduction of Google Glass and tools such as the Oculus Rift, the history of the simulation and augmentation of physical reality dates back to the middle of the last century. Experimentation throughout the 1940s and 1950s led to cinematographer Morton Hellig’s creation of a simulator known at the Sensorama (1957–1962),11 which comprised visuals, sound, vibration and even smell. Ivan Sutherland’s head-mounted display (HMD 1968) allowed people to immerse themselves in a virtual world for the first time. From 1972 onwards, Myron Krueger developed Videoplace,12 which allowed audiences to interact with virtual objects for the first time. Artists such as Steve Mann, who created the wireless wearable web camera WearCam (1994),13 pioneered wearable computing, opening up possibilities for mobile netcasting. Also in 1994, Julie Martin created the first augmented theatre production, Dancing in Cyberspace, in which dancers and acrobats interacted with virtual objects in real space for the first time. These artistic experimentations continue today in the augmented reality projects of the ManifestAR collective.

Real-world geometries and the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is a nuanced category that has evolved through different stages over more than a decade. Within the larger context of the New Aesthetic, it refers to the connection between devices and data streams, to objects with embedded digital technologies that can be managed and inventoried by software. The Internet of Things is infiltrated by the internet yet embodied and ‘humanized’, reversing the process of the digitization of physical material by embedding the virtual in materiality. A very different, yet also related, aesthetic category is real-world geometries, seemingly computer-generated geometries and (often pixelated) structures that take physical form. A predecessor to this virtually driven materiality is the early work of Vladimir Bonacic, who worked in the Croatian National Research Institute Ruder Boskovic in Zagreb, where he was the director of the Laboratory of Cybernetics from 1969 to 1973. His dynamic objects, such as GF E16.4 CNSM (1969–1971),14 are real-world physical ‘pixelated’ structures that generate symmetrical patterns. Bonacic began his work under the auspices of the influential New Tendencies Movement, which, from 1961 onwards, presented lumino-kinetic and neo-constructivist art. Bonacic once remarked that the computer must not simply remain a tool for simulation, but gives us a new substance and uncovers a new world before our eyes (Bonacic 1971). In many ways this pioneering work pre-dates the projects currently labelled ‘post-internet’ – works that are deeply informed by the internet and digital processes yet take the form of physical objects. These types of objects, created by artists such as Cory Arcangel, Oliver Laric, Aleksandra Domanovic and the entire VVORK collective, Michael Bell Smith, Marisa Olson, Gene McHugh, Artie Vierkant and Seth Price amongst others15 are in turn influenced by the practice of the ‘first generation’ of net artists, such as Alexei Shulgin, JODI, Olia Lialina, Heath Bunting and Mark Amerika,16 among others, and the discussions taking place on platforms such as nettime, The Thing or Rhizome.17 It is important to note that the New Aesthetic didn’t really recognize these movements that directly predated it.

A direct connection can be traced between today’s New Aesthetic and the worlds of electronic arts, media art, video art and internet art over the past 50 years. Today’s New Aesthetic images and objects are part of a larger historical trajectory, one that has a storied tradition yet was often neglected and existed on the periphery of artistic practice or technological innovation. Interestingly, this trajectory also gave the art more potential for growth due to the lack of pressures from either the art world or the sciences with regard to the innovations happening within the contexts of both these worlds.

Theoretical and philosophical genealogies

The New Aesthetic and its visual genealogies resonate with, and have been informed by, a multitude of theoretical and philosophical concepts that cannot be traced in detail in this text. Some of them will be further explored in other chapters in this volume. In order to grasp which aspects of the New Aesthetic might register as new, it is crucial to at least point to the theories and discussions that have laid the groundwork for the New Aesthetic. The theoretical and philosophical frameworks sketched out in the following represent an intersection of concepts as they relate to the New Aesthetic.

Perception and psychology

Curt Cloninger, in particular, has pointed to the uncanny aspects of the New Aesthetic:

Beginning with Freud: New Aesthetic images are uncanny (unheimlich, un-homelike). If NA images were totally familiar, we would read them as family photos. (They are our new family photos.) We recognise ourselves in NA images, but also something other than ourselves; or rather, still ourselves – but ourselves complicated, enmeshed, othered.

(Cloninger 2012)

Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny (Freud 1919) defines the uncanny as ‘un-homely’ (unheimlich), as something that reveals what remains hidden in the notion of the homely (heimisch), the known and comfortable, which, as Freud argues, conceals some aspects of itself. The German word ‘heimlich’ in fact combines both of these aspects, suggesting both ‘homely’ (heimisch) and ‘secretly’ (heimlich). In his article ‘The Uncanny Valley’ (Mori 1970), Masahiro Mori adopted the notion of the uncanny for evaluating the relationship between appearance and familiarity in robotics and the tipping point at which the familiar becomes strange, alienating or upsetting. Mori represents strangeness in mathematical terms, as negative familiarity, and his concepts remain relevant in both robotics and animation for evaluating when the humanoid crosses the line between the realistic and the creepy.

The uncanny describes a vague feeling of estrangement from that which is comforting and lies within the realm of the intimate. It captures intrinsic aspects of the New Aesthetic as digitally imbued or networked objects, images and structures that are both familiar and ‘close to home’ yet see, read and reflect us in ways that we may not always fully grasp. Our bracelet might ‘know’ how long we sleep and how much we walk, our phones might congratulate us on our achievements, our children’s toys might smile back at them, and the ad that flashes at us on the screen as we pass by might know our age and gender. The objects surrounding us answer our needs for being seen, acknowledged, validated and understood in a scenario both comforting and alienating – a scenario in which reflection, recognition and response no longer rely on a human but have been delegated to a machinic other. The concepts of the uncanny and the uncanny valley have moved to new territory, from the humanoid robot to our smart devices.

Aesthetics and systems

How we perceive the world is inextricably linked with our systems of social organization, which in turn exhibit their own aesthetic characteristics. As a construct deeply embedded in technological systems – such as machine and software vision – and the way they shape daily life, societies and politics, the New Aesthetic is historically rooted in concepts ranging from cybernetic theories regarding the interaction between man and machine and the systems aesthetics of the 1960s to the evolution of technologies of reproduction from mechanical to digital.

In the 1940s, American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) coined the term ‘cybernetics’ (from the Greek term kybernetes, meaning ‘governor’ or ‘steersman’) for the comparative study of different communication and control systems, such as the computer and the human brain. In Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), he defined three central concepts which he maintained were crucial in any organism or system – communication, control and feedback – and postulated that the guiding principle behind life and organization is information, contained in messages. Cybernetics marked a shift in the understanding of the living organism by positing that living creatures and computing machines operate on the basis of a self-regulation attained through communication and feedback of electrochemical or electronic signals. Cybernetics as a science, and the parallel it postulated between natural and computer-driven information processing, receded in importance over the decades, but the fusion of machine processing and the decision-making process (and politics) acting upon the natural – from human life to the environment – became increasingly pronounced. In the early 1960s, J. C. R. Licklider – director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), a division of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – established the funding priorities that would lead to major developments such as the creation of the internet. In his article ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ (1960), Licklider describes the cooperative interaction between humans and electronic computers as an expected development (Licklider 1960). The close coupling and partnership envisioned by Licklider positioned computers as ‘facilitators’ of formulative thinking, and allowed for cooperation between humans and computers in making decisions and controlling complex situations. However, humans were the ones who set the goals and determined the criteria, while computing machines took on the routinizable work that would prepare the way for insights and decisions. Today’s human–computer symbiosis, as it manifests in aspects of the New Aesthetic, has taken a more complex, more convoluted and less transparent form. While algorithms are ultimately written by humans, their complexity can also take on its own dynamics, as the havoc wreaked by algorithmic trading illustrates. Google’s algorithm for its search engine is a very valuable and guarded trade secret. Computers frequently control complex situations. In the world of the New Aesthetic, symbiosis can become a parasitism whereby software feeds off and capitalizes on its host.

The effect of information processing on the physical world and its informational systems also played a major role in the cultural notions of systems aesthetics that gained traction in the 1960s. In his essays ‘Systems Esthetic’ (Burnham 1968) and ‘Real Time Systems’ (Burnham 1969), Jack Burnham used (technologically driven) systems as a metaphor for cultural and art production. In ‘Systems Esthetic’, Burnham states that there is atransition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture. Here change emanates not from things but from the way things are done. […] A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, ongoing relationships between organic and non-organic systems, be these neighborhoods, industrial complexes, farms, transportation systems, information centers or any other of the matrixes of human activity. (Burnham 1968)

Revisited in the context of Burnham’s ideas, the New Aesthetic seems to mark a systems-oriented culture in which the matrixes of human activity and social organization either become accessible through or are symbolized by objects, ranging from drones to smart architectures and mobile digital devices. The New Aesthetic as a new manifestation of systems-oriented culture cannot be separated from technological reproduction and its effects on both image and object culture and social organization.

Some of the effects of technological reproduction can be traced in the arguments developed in Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935), Bill Nichols’ ‘The Work of Culture in the Age of Cybernetic Systems’ (1988) and Douglas Davis’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis 1991–1995)’. Walter Benjamin suggested correspondences between changes in the economic mode of production, the nature of art, and categories of perception (Benjamin 1935). For Benjamin, the possibilities of mechanical reproduction inherent in media such as photography and film, in particular, could liberate art from ritual and push it towards the arena of political engagement – for better or for worse, since these possibilities also provided a basis for propaganda and manipulation. The major casualty in this process of liberation would be aura, the situatedness of an object or a work of art in time and place. According to Benjamin, montage, as a change of place and focus that periodically assails the spectator, most strongly testified to the new form of machine-age perception. Benjamin outlined how the representation of social practices is remediated in the language of cinema and how new ways of seeing always propose new forms of social organization.

Focusing on the work of culture in the late 1980s, Bill Nichols identified interactive simulations and simulated interactions – from Reagan’s Star Wars program and computer games to surrogate motherhood – as the key change in reproduction and forms of representation that echo Baudrillard’s simulacra as a new form of social practice (Nichols 1988). Nichols asked how our sense of reality is being adjusted by new means of electronic computation and digital communication, and how these technological changes might introduce new forms of culture into the relations of production. One could argue that these new forms of culture today find their expression in virtual sweatshops: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; the economic system of virtual worlds such as Second Life; and the digital labour that millions of people around the world engage in by generating data for social media platforms through their posts – data that can then be mined for profit. These new forms of labour culture resonate with the crowdsourcey and diffuse nature of the New Aesthetic described by Bruce Sterling.

Written only a few years later than Nichols’ essay, Douglas Davis’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ picks up on different aspects of Benjamin’s original text by identifying the major cultural changes in the understanding of images that were brought about in the transition from analogue to digital culture. Taking the lack of distinction between copy and original in digital reproduction as a starting point, Davis outlines a culture of vision and revision in which we can comprehend the concept of a ‘post-original original’ – a culture in which the deconstruction of images can have its own singular value (Davis 1991–1995). Davis argues that aura persists as a here and now that validates the uniqueness of a copy. The New Aesthetic – unfolding in the continuous here and now of the Tumblr platform, with its focus on the ever-present now rather than thematically structured chronology – emerges as the latest manifestation of this long history of configurations of human–computer interaction, technological reproduction, and image and object culture.

Politics of vision and image

The New Aesthetic’s ‘culture’ cannot, therefore, be separated from politics of vision and image (‘The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices’ was the title of the original SXSW panel). Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), in which he uses Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization of the panopticon as prison architecture to investigate the function of disciplinary mechanisms as an apparatus of power, looms large over the New Aesthetic (Foucault 1995). Foucault saw the ever-visible prisoner as an object of information but never subject in communication, and argued that

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

(Foucault 1995)

The New Aesthetic is the product of an environment in which people are continuously subjected or voluntarily subject themselves to visibility, be it through the use of their GPS-equipped mobile devices or their urge to broadcast themselves on social media platforms. At the same time, there is at least the potential for communication, whether it is realized or not. A post on the New Aesthetic Tumblr (26 April 2014) featured the Turkopticon,18 an add-on or script developed at the University of California San Diego that extends the functionality of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk by highlighting reviews of the requesters who solicit workers on the platform. Turkopticon is aimed at helping the people in ‘the “crowd” of crowdsourcing’ watch out for each other, buffering their status as principle of their own subjection.

As Cloninger points out in the opening quote to this chapter, the New Aesthetic can be seen as rooted in Debord’s notion of spectacle as capitalism condensed into an image. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord writes:

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things,’ which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence

(Debord 1967)

The principle of commodity fetishism is a mechanism that has long been operating in branding and marketing. The cult of the Nike ‘swoosh’ as product emblem could be seen as an instance of capitalism condensed into image. Within the realm of the New Aesthetic spectacle, images do not necessarily exist above and supersede objects, but become tangible in a new, distorted way. The New Aesthetic image, as Cloninger highlights, is an accumulation of technology to such a degree that it becomes a bodily, graspable image. The New Aesthetic image could be custom-designed according to an individual’s tastes and likes, and navigable or triggered by that person’s body (as in advertising displays using full-body tracking and facial recognition technology to push customized product at the passer-by), or could take the form of a tangible object mirroring or responding to its owner.In ‘The New Aesthetic and Its Politics’, James Bridle emphasizes that ‘the New Aesthetic is concerned with everything that is not visible’ in the images and quotes of the New Aesthetic Tumblr, ‘but that is inseparable from them, and without which they would not exist’ (Bridle 2013). Bridle’s statement highlights an interesting conundrum for the legibility of the New Aesthetic. He argues that it was important to him

that the New Aesthetic project is undertaken within its own medium: it is an attempt to ‘write’ critically about the network in the vernacular of the network itself: in a tumblr, in blog posts, in YouTube videos of lectures, tweeted reports and messages, reblogs, likes, and comments. In this sense, from my perspective, it is as much work as criticism: it does not conform to the formal shapes – manifesto, essay, book – expected by critics and academics. As a result, it remains largely illegible to them […] But I think the deeper and more interesting aspect of this misreading of the New Aesthetic is that it directly mirrors what it is describing: the illegibility of technology itself to a non-technical audience.

(Bridle 2013)

Bridle’s assumption that critical writing through blogposts and tweets remains illegible to critics and academics can be safely ignored; the critics and academics who created disciplines such as ‘network cultures’ through their online practice, among others, presumably would take issue with his statement. The positioning of the New Aesthetic as a mirror image of technology’s illegibility, however, seems a fitting description of how the New Aesthetic operates, both on the Tumblr and in its existence as a meme, and raises questions about its very enterprise. The New Aesthetic as image of the illegible is precisely what makes it a ‘poor image’, yet an image that reflects on its own conditions. Given this status, how exactly is the New Aesthetic political, other than in its function as a trigger for the critical discourse surrounding it – the articles and books written and published by critics, academics, Bridle himself, and others who bring the necessary research to the subject? While every pixel of the New Aesthetic is infused with politics, its self-representation in the eternal now of its Tumblr remains illegible and apolitical, only partly recognizable, and uncanny. Can the New Aesthetic’s social functionality be resurrected without genealogies of its ideas and images? One could argue that the New Aesthetic is illegible not only to non-technical audiences but, to varying degrees, even to the specialists in the field, because the back-end of corporate technologies has increasingly become less transparent, highly guarded, patented, and closed-sourced. Can the New Aesthetic generate the agency that is necessary to make it legible?

Aesthetics of mediation and ontology

The legibility of the New Aesthetic is interconnected with the way the New Aesthetic mediates and is being mediated. In ‘Mediating Political “Things,” and the Forked Tongue of Modern Culture’, Bruno Latour critiques a condition of modern culture – developed over centuries – in which the multiplicity of the mediation of reality is ignored or denied in the general perception of any discipline or social field (from science to religion) while each of these fields is busy refining techniques for mediation on a daily basis (Katti and Latour 2006). The illegible image of the New Aesthetic seems to exhibit similar tendencies by often ignoring or obscuring the layers of its own mediation. The New Aesthetic mediates through a network of ‘things’ – most literally the Internet of Things – that tie the social to the construction of meaning in a language of marketing and advertising.

Actor-network theory (AT), which evolved from the work of Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and others at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, seems to be particularly relevant in this context. AT is an attempt to develop a vocabulary that establishes links between three entities and resources and their agencies: the natural, the social fabric, and semiotic construction (where agency relates to the creation of meaning) (Latour 1990). Importantly, AT does not limit itself to human individual actors but extends the word actor, or actant, to non-human, non-individual entities. Latour emphasizes that networks in AT are not understood as either technical or social networks per se – ‘It does not wish to add social networks to social theory but to rebuild social theory out of networks’ – but strive to capture the very essence of societies and natures (Latour 1990, 67). As Latour puts it, ‘It is as much an ontology or a metaphysics, as a sociology’ (Latour 1990, 67). What makes AT relevant in the context of the New Aesthetic is both the delegation of agency to the non-human and the linking of the natural, social and semiotic that seems crucial to understanding the pervasiveness of the New Aesthetic, which might manifest in an image or object that resonates with these domains.

The New Aesthetic reflects a new status of subject–object relationships in which our preferences, tastes, likes and memories can be reflected back to us by objects that might offer to assist us with daily tasks, becoming actants on our behalf. Given this condition, it does not come as a surprise that both AT (as an ontology and sociology) and object-oriented ontology (OOO) resonate with the New Aesthetic. As theorized by Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost et al., OOO rejects the privileging of human existence over that of objects and posits that the status of objects cannot be ontologically defined by their relations with humans or other objects. In ‘Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to Be a Thing’ (2012), Ian Bogost writes:

[T]his Alien Aesthetics would not try to satisfy our human drive for art and design, but to fashion design fictions that speculate about the aesthetic judgments of objects. If computers write manifestos, if Sun Chips make art for Doritos, if bamboo mocks the bad taste of other grasses – what do these things look like? Or for that matter, when toaster pastries convene conferences or write essays about aesthetics, what do they say, and how do they say it?

(Bogost 2012)

The question of what it is like to be a ‘thing’ certainly sounds much less alien and speculative if that thing is a design fiction endowed with human data and artificial intelligence designed to anticipate or act upon a subject’s needs. The ways in which the New Aesthetic mediates rely on a complex framework of human and non-human ‘actants’ that are socially networked, act upon natural resources and the social fabric, and create new variations of semiotic construction (in the sense of agency that produces meaning).


Considering the multiple art-historical and theoretical frameworks that converge in the New Aesthetic, it becomes challenging to see the New Aesthetic as anything radically new. As Cloninger puts it, ‘The thing was there all along; but we never saw it this way until now. […] NA images are visual eruptions of everyday functioning systems in the world, systems humans never saw in this way until now’ (Cloninger 2012). The value of the New Aesthetic resides in creating a frame through which we see the culmination of a long history in a different way. Yet what we see is not necessarily a clear, legible image – a fact that may very well be the New Aesthetic’s appeal. At the same time, it seems impossible for the New Aesthetic to have a social functionality, for people to read, understand and act upon it without the genealogies of the ideas, images and objects that form it.


  1. The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, SXSW, 12 March 2012.
  2. Paik, Nam June,; Vasulka, Woodie and Steina,; Acconci, Vito,; Guyonnet, Jacques,; Menkman, Rosa,
  3. Cage, John,; Morton, Phil,; Sandin, Dan,
  4. Noll, Michael A.,; Nees, George,; Nake, Frieder,; Franke, Herbert,; Mohr, Manfred,; Verostko, Roman,; Cohen, Harold,; Kawano, Hiroshi,; also see The Algorists,
  5. Fisher, Howard,; Chernoff, Herman,; Becker, Richard A. and Cleveland, William S.,∼kpotter/Library/Papers/becker:1987:BS/; Legrady, George,
  6. Peljhan, Marko,; System-77,; Anrall, Timo,; The Bureau of Inverse Technology,
  15. Arcangel, Cory,; Laric, Oliver,; Price, Seth,
  16. Shulgin, Alexei,; JODI,;Lialina, Olia,; Bunting, Heath,; Amerika, Mark,
  17. The Thing,; Rhizome,


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